A few weeks ago, a man emailed me to “congratulate” me for “overcoming my gender” and voting for Bernie Sanders. After reading a short blog post I wrote here, he incorrectly assumed that I was one of the many youngish women voting for Sanders. It was an odd turn of phrase, one that simultaneously implied that gender is something that can be rendered politically irrelevant by a single vote while also suggesting that being a woman was something that can and should be mastered. By this line of thinking, I suppose I was owed a congratulatory note.
Since the long slog of the Presidential primaries began, I’ve received many emails from men. But this particular one struck me: it seemed to get to the very heart of the increasingly frustrating conversation that has formed around young feminists, and their decision to support Sanders over Clinton by a margin of 20 percent.
This decision is framed as either inexplicable or essential; there are two separate narratives in play here, each based on a distinct set of assumptions about how a feminist should vote.
One narrative makes young women voters the problem. As presumed feminists, they are voting for the wrong presidential candidate, and incorrectly choosing a man over a woman. At best, this decision is a betrayal of some hazy fundamentals of feminism. At worst, it’s kind of false consciousness—a vote driven by a youthful delusion that gender is a meaningless construction. Feminism, the narrative says, is about supporting other women, and Hillary Clinton is a woman. A vote for Clinton is a vote to make history, to fundamentally change the look of the presidency. With such high stakes, how could young women possibly cast their lot with a white man?
That narrative is, and has always been, an impoverished one. “Supporting other women” is an empty phrase that poses as ideology. It sounds nice, yet it assumes that women are a homogenous group—that we easily agree on all issues simply because we are women, and that we are all positioned in the world within the same way.
But the phrase—the idea of women supporting women as if the act were as simple as saying it—is politically and culturally intoxicating. It was certainly a driving force when John McCain nominated Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential candidate in 2008. “Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America. But it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all!” Palin told an Ohio crowd in 2008. And, the broad hollowness of “supporting other women”—the amount of non-support that phrase can cover—showed in the end. Despite the McCain/Palin attempt to make history, Barack Obama won women by 12 points.
Yet this line of inquiry continues to be pursued. “Young women are choosing Bernie Sanders over the first serious female presidential contender in history? What’s going on?” a Politico article breathlessly teased. Likewise, Cosmopolitan surveyed four female college students and Time returned to Clinton’s alma mater, the women’s college Wellesley, to ask how the sisterhood could possibly support Sanders. A piece at New York Magazine more diplomatically explored that same question. “The idea of voting for a woman purely for the fact that she’s a woman—that’s really almost the opposite of what we’re talking about in our feminist movement,” a Wesleyan University freshman told the magazine.
There’s a particular, biased demand in all of the stories about the “irrational” decision of young women to support Sanders. They each require from young women a defense of their politics, one which is assumed to be irrationally estranged from the fibers of their person; they ask women to explain their interpretations, as if by default they are divorced from objective truths about gender and history.
These stories leave a bad taste in my mouth, not because they are poorly written or because the women in them aren’t articulate and informed (they are)—but because their very framing is built on an old presumption that young women could not possibly be making rational decisions. We don’t write the same articles or talk the same way about men: from a young age, it’s assumed that their political ideologies emerge from their rational nature, from the natural order of things. Men vote for men not out of some allegiance to gender, but simply because that is how the universe works. Men’s individuality needs no defense.
Women, on the other hand, must need education. The underlying idea that a feminist should vote a certain way is prevalent among so-called Berniebros and Hillarybots, easy shorthand for those who insist on convincing nearly anyone the public on the objective correctness of their choice. If young women are irrational, then they need guidance either from older feminists or well-meaning men on the internet. To borrow Rebecca Solnit’s phrase, they are “an empty vessel to be filled...with wisdom and knowledge.”
And women, usually the recipients of unsolicited moral advice, are on this issue giving plenty of it. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” Madeleine Albright recently said while introducing Clinton at a New Hampshire rally. There’s no doubt that when Albright started using that phrase 25 years ago, it had a sharper, more urgent resonance. The landscape of gender diversity was apocalyptically bleak, and supporting other women a much easier dictum when there were so few to support. But Albright still stands firmly by her catchphrase. In a recent New York Times op-ed, she wrote:
In a society where women often feel pressured to tear one another down, our saving grace lies in our willingness to lift one another up. And while young women may not want to hear anything more from this aging feminist, I feel it is important to speak to women coming of age at a time when a viable female presidential candidate, once inconceivable, is a reality.
Note the phrase “our saving grace,” so overloaded with religious devotion. We are still within the first narrative, where it is a positive, necessary act of faith to vote for Clinton. A vote against her, for Sanders, is to be graceless, metaphorically cast to hell.
But again, this ideology collapses on itself. It expects women to divorce the personal and the political—a particularly odd mandate in American culture, which almost obscenely values individuality. Women who believe their lives would be better under Sanders are allotted none of this individual conviction, particularly women of color who are consistently to the left of their white counterparts.
I have spent so much time thinking about gender and obligation, “supporting other women”—the first narrative—that the man’s email surprised me; it reminded me of the second narrative thread that’s run through the primaries, in which the seemingly rational choice is to support Sanders, and to support Clinton is to be again an empty vessel, again waiting for enlightenment. “Congratulations,” my inbox rang; you found that enlightenment. You have shed the defect of your gender; you are rational.
The implication, of course, is that any woman who votes for Clinton is not—that they’re moved solely by gender and not a clear-purposed political ideology. Women who acknowledge that voting for a woman is indeed part of the reason that they are supporting Clinton are lectured and harassed. Their harassment, in turn, is painted as a figment of their imagination; after all, young women are voting for Bernie Sanders, and they’re making out just fine.
Take, for example, Michelle Goldberg’s almost ambivalent support of Clinton. “I know [the] case against Clinton,” Goldberg writes, and then dutifully lists virtually all of the drawbacks that Clinton poses as a candidate. Yet she comes to the conclusion that Clinton is her candidate; a conclusion drawn neither from gender nor history-making:
[In 2007] I wrote article after article inveighing against the idea that Clinton was a feminist standard-bearer. In fact, I argued, she exemplified “a phenomenon seen in many developing and crisis-ridden countries: the great man’s wife or daughter promising to continue his legacy.” I was livid when older feminists like Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, and Linda Hirshman denigrated the young feminists supporting Obama. “If feminism equaled supporting Hillary Clinton, I’m not the only one who wouldn’t want anything to do with it,” I sniffed.
Goldberg’s decision is made with knowledge of issues and in full possession of reason—something that seems nearly inexplicable to men who disdainfully offer “actually” and “congratulations.”
The Democratic primary has left me fatigued. I am tired of being a woman, I am tired of being condescended to. I am tired of being told how a feminist should vote, rather than simply being allowed to stake out my own political ideologies. “The assertion that ‘the personal is political’ is surely one of feminism’s major achievements,” Maggie Nelson wrote, in 2012's The Art of Cruelty. “Even so, predictably enough, women still struggle to lay their claim to it.”
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